British Columbia mom Candice Servatius is suing her school district for violating her children’s Charter rights after local Indigenous leaders demonstrated a traditional smudging ceremony as a classroom learning activity.
The Nuu-chah-nulth cleansing ritual (which took place in 2015) asked participating students, including the Servatius children, to hold a cedar branch while members of the tribal council fanned smoke from a smoldering sage bundle around the room. They describe it as a cultural practice, not the religious ritual Servatius argues her children were forced into without parental consent or any option to refuse.
The purpose of the ritual was to foster a sense of inclusion for Nuu-chah-nulth children by including parts of their culture in the school. Educators and council members both hope that greater recognition of Indigenous cultural traditions will help close the achievement gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, who frequently struggle to feel a sense of belonging in largely Eurocentric school environments across Canada.
Principal Stacey Manson sent home a letter to parents, explaining that the smudging ritual was part of the culture and belief system of Nuu-chah-nulth students:
This will be our opportunity to learn about Nuu-chah-nulth traditions and experience cleansing of energy from previous students in our classroom, previous energy in our classroom, and cleanse our own spirits to allow GREAT new experiences to occur for all of us.
Servatius says that by the time she received the letter and visited the school to object, the ceremony had already taken place. She says her children experienced mental distress as a result of their exposure to the ritual (though how much of that distress came from fear of their mother’s oversized reaction is a perfectly valid question that has yet to be answered).
In an affidavit, tribal council president Judith Sayers connected the classroom activity to the larger history of colonization, insisting upon cultural awareness as a first step:
[A]ll young people have to be taught about cultural differences. This is a crucial part of reconciliation and changing the relationship between Indigenous and [non-Indigenous] Canadians.
The nuanced boundaries between cultural and religious practices within many Indigenous cultures can blur distinctions between the spiritual and the cultural, and here lies the crux of Servatius’ case. Was her daughter “forced to participate in a religious ritual that conflicted with her own religious convictions”? Or was she being asked to participate in a cultural exchange that has too long been one-sided, with Indigenous experience devalued and demonized by the dominant colonial culture?
The upcoming trial, slated to begin next Monday, will tackle the question of where lines between culture and religion should be drawn.
That’s a big question in a province that’s attempting to pick out a path to reconciliation after centuries of colonial domination that saw many, many Indigenous children forced (often violently and traumatically) into much more explicitly religious practices.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Lorne for the link)